Semiotics of gender design in Star Wars

Cinema is and has been since its inception, a visual medium. As a result, it is crucial to understand and recognize symbols within the text of cinema. Specifically, symbols that lie within contemporary cinema. With woman now achieving an all time high, of headlining films in 2016, with 29% of the top one hundred grossing movie protagonists being female. However in those same one hundred films, woman made up for only 32% of all speaking roles( Kilday, 2017). It is now crucial- arguably- more than ever, to look at how they are represented? What symbols are used to define them and their characters? Does contemporary cinema naturalize any harmful values from yesteryear? How does the semiotics of cinema, translate to how woman are viewed in the real world?

In particular, the aesthetic signs on display, will be the ones put through the most thorough analysis. It is important to keep in mind that the analysis, will be purely subjective, based on my interpretation of codes and signifiers. The focus will primarily revolve around the design of characters and the background visual aesthetics of the characters world.

In order to understand what particular symbols are resonating with a modern audience, one of the top ten grossing films of 2016 will be used as a sample. The film-  possibly the most important Star Wars film- would be ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’. It’s not only the first ever stand-alone ‘Star Wars’ film, it is also the first film to feature a solo female protagonist. Now female protagonists have existed in ‘Star Wars’ before, however they have had the role of duo protagonist or trio protagonists, within the narrative of the films. These are the first four, images you will get if you type the name of the films protagonist- Jyn Erso- into google:

The apparel of the character in the images has a gender neutral design. Nothing about the outfit, is even remotely sexual, instead the focus of the design, appears to be functional. In each image, we see the character wearing an outfit that would functional within the context of the image. Take for example the second image. In it we see the character in what appears to be an imperial base- for anyone unfamiliar with ‘Star Wars’ the imperials are the villains. In the image she’s wearing an imperial outfit. In the context of the film she is the protagonist, thus wearing the outfit signifies a level of competent subterfuge. This design and decision, indicates that the character has a sense of initiative and common sense about her. Compare this to the original ‘Star Wars’ film (Lucas,1977):

 

In this scene, the male characters are using the same sensible tactic as Jyn. That is disguising themselves as the enemy for the purpose of infiltration.The one female character however- Leia- is visual portrayed very differently. In the scene above, Leia, wears a white dress, which isn’t revealing in the sense that her bare body is exposed. However it is fairly tight and makes her hips visually prominent. The pose that she’s doing when she first enters the scene is also provocative- for a children’s adventure film. The character in the 1977 film, has a number of visual gender signifyers. Besides the already discussed apparel, the way her hair is in perfect condition and stylized, despite her being a prisoner at the time, is a big give away, of her gender. Jyn Erso on the other hand has almost no major gender signifyer, her design is one of practicality.

The only major flaw of the design, is that perhaps it doesn’t have enough character in it. The colours used in her outfit design are dark, browns and greys- very bleak. Now in the context of the film’s story, the world is very bleak, so the design would make sense, however in the stories context, Jyn becomes a beacon of hope for the heroes of the film. But rather then adapt a newer design or incorporating different- possibly brighter- colours into the design. The character’s outfit design is ultimately left fairly bland throughout.

Once again, we’ll compare this lack of evolution in Jyn’s character design, to the character of Leia in ‘Star Wars: Return of the Jedi’ (Lucas, 1983).

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Now to be fair, Leia spends much of the film in a sexualised bikini costume, but that is in the first act. After escaping that fate herself, by the end of the film, Leia has gone from a sexualised- by the villains that context is important- to a similar under sexualised, functionally designed character.

In conclusion, from these example, the symbols and floating signifyers of popular female characters design in fiction have evolved to quite a significant degree- as far as protagonist characters are concerned. On one hand, this evolution is progressive and positive, as female characters are no longer designed purely for sexual satisfaction. That isn’t to say that Leia’s character was designed for that purpose, however the series has more then a few examples of exploiting the characters sexuality. On the other hand, this has led to a lack of evolution in character design over the course of the narrative.

References:

Image of Jyn Erso from Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Wookiapedia. (Online).Available at: http://vignette1.wikia.nocookie.net/starwars/images/2/2a/Jyn_Erso_Fathead.png/revision/latest?cb=20161109012753 [Assessed on 8/3/2017]

Image of Jyn Erso from Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Wookiapedia. (Online).Available at: http://vignette3.wikia.nocookie.net/starwars/images/0/00/Jyn_Erso.png/revision/latest?cb=20160407230633 [Assessed on 8/3/2017]

Image of Leia Organa from Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. Pinterest. (Online).Available at: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/564x/03/a3/04/03a30401b43c524effd0287a97402866.jpg  [Assessed on 8/3/2017]

Image of Jyn Erso from Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Bad Kitty Tees. (Online).Available at: http://www.badkittytees.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/jyn-1.jpg [Assessed on 8/3/2017]

Image of Jyn Erso from Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Wookiapedia.(Online). Available at: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/9/9d/Felicity_Jones_as_Jyn_Erso_(2016).jpg [Assessed on 8/3/2017]

Kilday, Gregg.(2017). Movies in 2016 Featured a Record Number of Woman Protagonists. The Hollywood Reporter. Can be accessed online at:http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/movies-2016-featured-a-record-number-women-protagonists-977956 [Assessed on 8/3/2017]

Rogue One: A Star Wars story. (2016). [film]. Hollywood. Gareth Edwards. [Assessed on 8/3/2017]

Star Wars: A new Hope. (1977). [film]. Hollywood. George Lucas. [Assessed on 8/3/2017]

Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. (1983). [film]. Hollywood. George Lucas. [Assessed on 8/3/2017]

 

 

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